Tik Tok: A National Security Threat?

I think it is safe to say that for most people, TikTok is the only thing getting them through the boredom of quarantine. Trendy dances to learn, meme content for days, and cats jumping over 5 levels of toilet paper is really the only entertainment we need to get through months of being confined in our homes. However, I couldn’t help but remember another side of TikTok that has seemed to disappear amongst the exponential growth of this social media platform.

Anyone could tell you that the United States and China share a turbulent relationship based on economic competition. China’s rapid economic growth has had the United States on the edge of their seats and in fear of giving up their hegemony. Both these powerful economies are in a complicated trade relationship that the world has closely had their eyes on. President Trump has thrown heavy trade restrictions on China in fear that trading would pose a continued national security risk. Foreign policy analysts argue that this act increased tensions with China and did nothing to solve existing conflicts such as territorial competition in the South China Sea, human rights, and religious persecution. This makes our current relationship with the state much more difficult as some speculate a future hegemonic war. Yet this is only a short summary of their complicated relations. 


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Interestingly enough, Tik Tok plays a vital part in the US’s speculations on Chinese intentions. Tik Tok merged with the app Musical.ly after the Chinese-owned company Bytedance decided to launch in August 2018. The app quickly proved its success as it rose in app store charts. 

As the platform advanced in popularity, United States officials were afraid that the Chinese-owned app was a way for China to collect data on its US users. An article from CNN Business stated, “Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton want the US intelligence community to assess the national security risks of TikTok and other Chinese-owned platforms…” Lawmakers feared another Russian meddling campaign like the one that influenced the 2016 presidential election. The article also stated that because Tik Tok is a Chinese-owned company, it will be forced to cooperate with the intelligence work of the Chinese Communist Party. The fear here is that regardless of Bytedance’s political affiliations, its roots in China allow for the Chinese government to decide how Bytedance’s data is used. This statement is supported by the US Director of National Intelligence who said, “"there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request."


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In addition to Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton, Senator Marco Rubio wrote a letter to congress calling for further investigation of the controversial platform. Rubio expresses concern as he disagrees with the Chinese government’s censoring of social media content relating to Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and more issues and fears a similar future for Tik Tok. He states that Tik Tok had already instructed its moderators to censor content not in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s views and sees an increase in this behavior. This leads him to call upon the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to investigate this possible security threat. 

In the previous CNN Business article, it was mentioned that Tik Tok responded to these accusations. In a statement they said, “Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law. … Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.” Additionally, in response to Rubio’s claims, Tik Tok stated, “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked.” Regardless of this statement, the US government remains on edge as the app grows in popularity. 


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Whether Tik Tok is a real national security threat or a victim of an economic trade war and US paranoia is for the US government to investigate. However, I find it interesting how our social media interactions can now be a part of the much larger plan of international war. If anything this is proof that International Relations is changing in ways we could not have predicted. War is now being fought through our screens right before our eyes. 

Regardless, Tik Tok will remain a popular platform. And just like most of our generation, I will continue to watch people master dances I cannot figure out, ferrets dancing with their owners, and relatable content about our boring quarantined lives. But remember, China may be watching...

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